Cyber Defense

Survey: Nation-states overtake insiders as DOD's top cyber threats

Activity by foreign governments has surpassed inept insiders as the biggest source of IT security threats, according to Defense Department IT pros responding to a new survey.

The third annual survey by IT management software company SolarWinds took a look at cybersecurity across the federal landscape, but also broke out results for DOD, whose respondents made up about 45 percent of those surveyed.

When asked to identify the greatest sources of IT security threats, 62 percent of DOD respondents identified foreign governments, with careless/untrained insiders identified by 51 percent. The big change was for foreign governments, which in last year’s survey was named by 48 percent. And although careless insiders may now be in second place, they’re still seen as a threat, falling only from 53 percent last year to 51 percent this year.

Other threats included the general hacking community (35 percent), hacktivists (32 percent), terrorists (27 percent), malicious insiders (23 percent) and industrial spies (20 percent).

The rise of other countries as perceived threats could reflect reports of increased cyber activity by countries such as Russia, China and Iran.

The involvement of nation-states could also affect the level of those attacks: The increased sophistication of threats was the most-commonly identified factor, at 37 percent, when respondents were asked to compare their agency’s vulnerability with last year. That was followed by end user policy violations (32 percent) and the volume of attacks (27 percent). 

Another potential source of trouble are modernization of consolidation efforts, at least unfinished ones, the survey found Forty-five percent said that IT consolidation and modernization had increased security challenges, in part because of incomplete transitions. But 24 percent said replacing legacy software and equipment lessened security challenges.

What steps reduce vulnerabilities? The most oft-cited factors among DOD respondents were improved application security (31 percent), increased use of smart cards for dual-factor authentication (26 percent), data encryption and standardized network configurations and monitoring (each at 25 percent), configuration change management (24 percent), and improved or increased security training (21 percent).

As for what’s standing in the way of better security, 26 percent identified budget constraints, 19 percent said the complexity of internal environments, 14 percent said competing priorities and other initiatives, and 12 percent identified inadequate collaboration with other internal teams.

And despite the impact of budget constraints, and large majority of respondents said investment in security tools would increase in 2016 (52 percent) or at least stay the same (36 percent).

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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